As the proxy war sets in fully in Syria with equal determination among all sides to change the calculations on the ground, the hopes for a major diplomatic breakthrough in the proposed Geneva peace conference have largely faded. While the Assad regime, aided by Iran and Russia, is making gains on the ground, a concerted effort is underway by the West and regional countries to re-structure the political and military opposition and attempt to reverse the current dynamic.
Western diplomatic sources tell Al-Arabiya that “Geneva won’t happen before the balance changes on the ground.” They point to Assad current military gains with the help of Hezbollah in the last few months, such as the defeat of the rebels in the border town of Qusayr, and preparations for larger battles in Homs and Aleppo. Assad has the upper hand in any peace talks if these circumstances hold, which could explain why the upcoming conference has not been scheduled yet. This dynamic is also driving fresh U.S. consultations to arm the opposition, as well as regional meetings to expand participation in the coalition bringing military cadres and liberal leaders.
Perhaps, more than anything else, the Hezbollah card is shaping Western views on the conflict and promising an escalation by the U.S., and some European countries. The U.S. estimates around 5000 Hezbollah fighters in Syria today, and fears dire consequences if the situation is left unchecked. Washington has concerns of the party it considers a terrorist organization, getting its hands on antiaircraft weaponry that could threaten regional stability and Israel. It is those fears that are driving the Obama administration to undertake its most serious review of arming key Syrian rebel groups this week. A Hezbollah-Assad domination in Syria is a nightmare scenario for Washington with far-reaching regional implications.
The diplomatic sources see both Russia and Iran doubling down on their support for the Assad regime. Iran has extended two credit lines with a total of $ 4 billion to Assad, and Russia has been silent on Hezbollah’s role. With Assad gaining ground, it is very unlikely that Russia would cede to major compromises such as an agreement in Geneva to be enforced later under a Chapter VII resolution at the Security council. The regime itself has sounded more triumphant in the last few weeks. Assad in his last interview with Hezbollah’s Al-Manar TV, showed “readiness and comfort” in going to Geneva.
Structuring the Opposition
Assad’s sense of confidence is partly attributed to the lack of structure and continued divisions among his opponents. The opposition lacks consensus on key decisions such as Geneva, and is marred by conflicting regional interests that drive its ranks in different directions. However, there is a serious Saudi effort underway to bring a more inclusive and structured body to the table before holding a peace conference. Michel Kilo, a liberal opposition member who was jailed under Assad, recently gained 14 seats in Syria’s national coalition. He is respected by many groups inside Syria and has helped in reconciliation efforts between the Christian minority that he is a member of, and Islamists and Kurdish groups in the North. Kilo met with Saudi Secretary General of the National Security Council Bandar Bin Sultan this week, and is also respected in Washington for his appeal inside Syria, and calling for a political solution.
The restructuring of the political opposition is aimed to bring in more minorities, and embrace the military opposition. The military joint staff for the opposition is now represented now with 15 seats in the coalition.
It is hard to see Assad’s opponents making any gains without expanding the opposition’s umbrella. The regime has benefitted from the Muslim Brotherhood dominance for a while in the coalition, and Assad himself has referred to the whole body as the “brotherhood” in meetings with UN envoy Lakhdar Brahimi. Altering this perception is key for opposition to gain credibility inside Syria, especially at a time of a higher anti-Brotherhood sentiment in the region.
On the military front, there are as well continued and more coordinated efforts to organize and boost the leadership of Supreme military command of the rebels headed by Salim Idriss. The General has become key figure in bridging support to the inside, and coordinating logistics with the Americans, the French and the British. The U.S. ability lately to identify and vet “moderate” rebel groups, signifies a shift as well in dynamic, one that is driving the arming consultations. However, such prospect is still contingent on Obama accepting it, and addressing the fears among many in the administration that those arms could end up in the hands of extremists affiliated with al-Qaeda.
All of the above leaves Geneva on the back burner for now, waiting for the ground situation to evolve and a better structured opposition.
Joyce Karam is the Washington Correspondent for Al-Hayat Newspaper, an International Arabic Daily based in London. She has covered American politics extensively since 2004 with focus on U.S. policy towards the Middle East. Prior to that, she worked as a Journalist in Lebanon, covering the Post-war situation. Joyce holds a B.A. in Journalism and an M.A. in International Peace and Conflict Resolution. Twitter: @Joyce_Karam